HRC legislative watch
From the Human Rights Coalition
On August 2, former prisoners LuQman Abdullah and Nathaniel Lee testified at a Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee Hearing about abusive conditions inside solitary confinement units (also known as the “hole”) in PA’s state prisons. The hearing also featured testimony by human rights investigator Bret Grote, Pennsylvania Prison Society Executive Director William DiMascio, and Department of Corrections Deputy Michael Klopotoski. The former prisoners, who are both now social workers, gave detailed accounts of Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement, which is the practice of holding prisoners 23 or more hours a day in small bathroom-sized cells with little or no contact with other people.
The hearing was convened at the Yeadon Borough Hall by Representatives Ronald Waters and Thomas Caltagirone. Representative Vanessa Brown was also in attendance.
“Isolation is used arbitrarily and often when there is no threat of violence or mass disturbances involved”, said Nathaniel Lee. This observation was echoed by LuQman Abdullah, who related his personal experiences with the “hole”: “I was first put in solitary for holding an educational study group”, stated Mr. Abdullah, who spent over a year and a half in the “hole” at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Rockview before being transferred to SCI Greene, where abusive conditions continued unabated. “I have witnessed guards at SCI Greene ram a baton up another prisoner’s rectum and punch, kick and stomp prisoners down to the ground until they were unconscious, as was done to me.” LuQman spent a total of five straight years in solitary. Both men, whose combined experiences total more than 40 years inside prison, highlighted the general atmosphere of impunity and abuse within the units. “No one will develop respect for the law when governed by those who abuse the laws they wish to instill respect for,” said Mr. Lee.
Their testimony was supported by that of Bret Grote, an investigator with the Human Rights Coalition who has spent the last three years documenting widespread abuse within Pennsylvania’s solitary confinement units such as physical assault, racist slurs and threats from guards, retaliation for filing grievances, and inadequate mental health care. Mr. Grote gave as an example the 2009 suicide of Matthew Bullock at SCI Dallas: “Mr. Bullock had attempted suicide multiple times while incarcerated, and had his medications cut prior to hanging himself . . . days later we received reports that guards had been encouraging him to commit suicide.”
“Walk through one of these special housing units and you will be stunned by the demented wailing and catatonic stares of the inmates and chilled by the exercise cages where for one hour a day . . . they are held like dogs in a kennel”, said William DiMascio, whose testimony highlighted the damage wrought upon prisoners’ minds by PA’s “holes”. “The effect of this psychologically devastating strategy heightens the prospects for violence against staff and, ultimately, the citizenry, and fails to in any way correct the aberrant behavior that led the person into the criminal justice system to begin with.”
Also present was Michael Klopotoski of the PA Department of Corrections, whose testimony chiefly consisted of a recitation of DOC policy regarding the units. Mr. Klopotoski left before he could be questioned about the rampant abuse at SCI Dallas during his tenure there as Superintendent. No evidence was provided in support of the DOC’s allegations that solitary confinement is a necessary and fair practice.
The 25 people in attendance consisted almost solely of prisoner rights advocates, many of whom have family serving time in the state prison system. Calls for the abolition of solitary and sweeping changes to the entire prison system were met with approving nods and cheers. In contrast Mr. Klopotoski’s testimony generated audible frustration, with many audience members feeling compelled to voice their criticism of the DOC.
As the hearing drew to a close, Representative Waters spoke of the need for advocates to educate the public about the reality of torture and abuse inside the state prisons in order to mobilize public opinion in support of change in the system. It is uncertain what the House Judiciary plans on doing following this hearing.
The News from Inside
SCI Greene prison: Prison law library staff and the prison administration have targeted jailhouse lawyer Frederick Ray for helping other prisoners with their cases and for speaking up about the inadequacies of the prison's law library
Mr. Ray was sent to the Restricted Housing Unit (which means solitary confinement cages also known as RHU or "the hole") on May 28. He was accused of "making complaints of racism and unfair treatment" about library staff and of having copies of other prisoners' legal work. A review board determined that he therefore presented a "danger to himself or others" and found him guilty of making claims that the librarians found insulting. He was sentenced to a year in the hole and his belongings were confiscated, including vital and time-sensitive legal paperwork on cases that he is currently litigating. After Mr. Ray went on a brief hunger strike and concerned citizens called prison officials, most of his property was returned to him, but he has since been sentenced to an additional 270 days in the hole, coming to a total sentence of nearly 2 years.
Other prisoners who use the law library have testified in support of Mr. Ray's version of events. He continues to fight his confinement.
SCI Coal Township prison: On the same day that members of the Human Rights Coalition were testifying at a hearing on solitary confinement in Yeadon, PA, jailhouse lawyer Andre Jacobs was targeted by prison staff for filing grievances and lawsuits against prison officials. HRC received reports from Mr. Jacob's grandmother and from 13 other prisoners that on August 2, guards who were delivering meals to prisoners in the RHU at Coal Township refused to feed Andre, telling him that it was because he "liked to file paperwork". When he protested, he was handcuffed, taken from his cell, and prison guards removed all of his belongings- including vital legal paperwork, all of his clothing and his mattress- and he was returned to his now-empty cell wearing only a "suicide smock". Over the following days he was periodically starved. On August 9, the Human Rights Coalition was informed of the situation and put out an alert for people to call in to the prison and to the Department of Corrections administration. It is still unknown if Andre remains under these same conditions.
SCI Frackville prison: On July 23rd at least 8 prisoners in the solitary confinement unit at SCI Frackville went on hunger strike over substandard conditions and abusive treatment by staff, including extreme heat and inmates being charged with fabricated misconduct. There were only 2 strikers left when inquiries were made to the prison on July 29th. HRC is still waiting more detailed reports regarding the hunger strike and is continuing to monitor conditions there.
SCI Albion prison: Maurice Williams spent the month of July on hunger strike at SCI Albion and has reportedly lost 70 pounds according to multiple prisoners. Mr. Williams is protesting the prison's refusal to properly treat his Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that produces a variety of symptoms affecting his mouth and his entire digestive system. These symptoms were further inflamed when Mr. Williams was attacked with pepper spray by guards in riot gear in mid-July. Mr. Williams began eating on August 2nd, but resumed his strike two days later when the prison refused to give him a medically appropriate diet.
SCI Cresson prison: Damont Hagan is being deprived of food on a consistent basis in the Secure Special Needs Unit at SCI Cresson and is reportedly losing weight. The Secure Special Needs Unit is solitary confinement for people the DOC recognize as having a need for mental health treatment. Mr. Hagan has been in solitary confinement for at least the last 4 years at SCIs Fayette, Camp Hill, Pittsburgh, and Cresson. Hagan continues to face frequent retaliation, including threats, deprivation of commissary, and sexual harassment. He has two current lawsuits against DOC employees and officials, and the Human Rights Coalition has copious documentation of systematic torture that corroborate Mr. Hagan's claims of multiple assaults, frequent deprivation of food and other necessities, destruction of property, retaliation, filthy conditions, and racist abuse he was subjected to while in the Special Management Unit at Camp Hill.
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